IN fostering a democratic culture that respects freedom of the media, and that encourages a cacophony of voices to comment on national affairs, what role the State plays in making sure Guyanese receive credible, reasonable and rational, morale-boosting content from operators of newspapers, magazines, radio and television, and online news sites?
It is a well-established truism that freedom must co-exist with responsible leadership, with professional ethics, and with consideration and regard for the overall public good, the well-being of citizens. Since the restoration of a free media landscape in this country, after decades of a State-controlled press under the Burnham regime, media outlets today flourish from coast to coast. Democracy depends on this foundation of freedom of speech, and on the network of media establishments keeping citizens engaged in national affairs, informed of State activities, and able to air their grievances free from fear. All this is well and wonderful.
However, there is a grave situation at hand, and it is imperative that the relevant arms of the State take notice of this anomaly. In a democracy where freedom flourishes, there is a fine line dividing anarchy and chaos, from order and good governance. In fact, under the concept of good governance comes such necessary ideas as responsibility, reasonableness, and respect for what fosters the public good. These ideas keep society moving along smoothly, even in the face of conflicting views and public arguments over polities and programmes and projects: that cacophony of voices shouting and screaming and debating in the national media cannot disrupt and disturb and destroy public order and the smooth running of society. It is the State’s role to maintain this fine balance.
Invested in the State, as an embedded aspect of good governance, is the necessity to maintain order across society, to nip any glimpse of anarchy in the bud, to prevent chaos at all cost, to ensure citizens enjoy their homeland in peaceful daily existence. One may point to the law enforcement authorities as the ones earmarked with this task. However, on the less black-and-white issue of guarding the social space from nefarious elements who may attempt to sow dissent, division, and discouragement into the minds and hearts of Guyanese, the State has a definite role to play.
This idea of a social space is important when regarding this issue, when considering how the media landscape impacts and influences and interacts with citizens; even guiding Guyanese on how to approach the task of being a citizen. The mass media establishment in any society shapes the national social space, influencing the psyche of citizens, even setting the national mood and dictating how people feel and think about their daily lives. The great media guru, Marshall McLuhan, made famous the adage that the “media is the message”. Indeed, the media establishment is the single most important factor in shaping, designing and developing the context into which citizens live; the national social atmosphere of the land.
Admirably, Guyana fosters a democratic environment where media outlets are left to self-regulate their content. Citizens, and also the State, expect that the people who operate and work in the national media would be well-trained, would uphold a high level of professional ethics, and would exercise responsible respect for upholding the public good, while giving citizens the best information possible, content that is well-researched, thoroughly edited, and vetted with reliable, objective sources.
Alas, such a situation hardly exists in some highly influential media outlets, and this is a major cause for concern. The State owes it to Guyanese to make sure that this most powerful of forces over the lives of citizens, be grounded in professionalism, ethical practice, and objective reasoning. Whose task is it to ensure this atmosphere exists, and is maintained? Clearly, the State has the ultimate role to play in establishing a playing field where the public good is always upheld.
Of course, Guyana enjoys associations and organisations that accredit media owners and practitioners, such as the Guyana Press Association and the Media Owners’ Association. There is the Department of Public Information, which is a government information service. However, some media outlets assail citizens with irresponsible, ill-researched, biased and emotive, even outlandish claims and accusations that only do harm to the public good, and also fosters an unhealthy public distaste for objective, factual information and knowledge.
This country is still recovering from decades of assault on functional literacy, and it is reasonable to expect that some levels of functional illiteracy crept into the national media – even at management levels, and in influential positions. Across the media, comprehensive training seems wanting. A perusal of media content, over time, would reveal grotesque misinformation, disinformation, and misunderstandings that have far-reaching and profound impact on the country.
This begs the serious question: what methods this country has in place to maintain a healthy national media landscape, where professionalism, ethics, and responsible leadership is the norm?
The elections of both 2015 and 2020 saw how influential the media landscape is in this country. Whilst in 2020, the media houses played a solid role in preventing a collapse of the democratic ideal, in 2015, the Government of President Donald Ramotar suffered irreparable damage at the hands of some influential, but irresponsible, national media operatives. Lies, distortions, accusations of massive State corruption, and even of cronyism and nefarious activities of all sorts, showed up in the media, severely damaging this country for five years.
In fact, the Coalition took office in 2015 with heated angst, lusting for vengeance against former State officials. In five years, however, not one single case was proven in the courts under the Coalition’s expensive witch hunt at the Special Organized Crime Unit (SOCU) and the State Assets Recovery Agency (SARA). Media reports had the Coalition falsely levelling accusations of misconduct against several members of the People’s Progressive Party/Civic (PPP/C), including Irfaan Ali, Bharrat Jagdeo, Anil Nandlall, Donald Ramotar, Ashni Singh and Winston Brassington. All of it was based on misguided media reports, especially in irresponsible national newspapers, on TV stations, and on online sites.
This shows, with stark seriousness, the necessity for the State to develop, implement, and maintain a national policy for media houses to exercise their freedom to broadcast, publish and distribute influential public information to gullible, culpable citizens. It cannot be a free for all, with no responsible guidelines in place. Every country in the world entrenches a national media policy to safeguard the public good.
As the nation saw between 2015 and 2020, democracy and the national media go hand in hand, and this relationship could only work for the public good if those values of professional ethics, responsible leadership, and objective reasoning are exercised countrywide with utmost care and respect and literate understanding. This is the sole responsibility of the State– to develop, maintain, and entrench policies of professional media operation, to make sure citizens are not again swamped with misinformation, disinformation, and insensitive false accusations. The State owes it to citizens to ensure the entire media landscape is trustworthy, professional, and ethical in every aspect of its public practice.